Ryan’s legacy can’t escape Trump

Ryan’s legacy can’t escape Trump


Speaker Paul Ryan allies also argue that he didn’t have a choice but to curb his criticism of President Donald Trump if he wanted to remain speaker. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Congress

The retiring House speaker touted a series of accomplishments in his farewell address, but Trump will loom over his tenure.

To hear retiring Speaker Paul Ryan tell it, he presided over one of the most productive Congresses in recent history. Tax cuts. Opioids legislation. A fortified military budget.
But as the Wisconsin Republican heads for the exits, the reality is he will be remembered with a far more controversial legacy.Story Continued Below

Ryan long fashioned himself as the moral compass of the party of Lincoln, a politician who tried to appeal to policymakers’ better angels. Yet as President Donald Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image, Ryan largely stifled his criticism of Trump in hopes of passing some of his top legislative priorities — what critics have referred to as his “pact with the devil.”
Ryan rebuked Trump on the campaign trail in 2016 for remarks he deemed “racist” or for policy proposals — like Trump’s Muslim ban — that he believed were unconstitutional and went against the very fabric of American society. But Ryan muted his pushback the moment Trump won the presidency. When Trump tweeted controversial comments, Ryan said he hadn’t seen them. Even in the wake of the disastrous 2018 midterm elections, when Trump taunted moderate House Republicans who lost their campaigns, Ryan said nothing to defend his members.
“He made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump — and he’s going to be remembered for that,” said Wisconsin conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, a former Ryan fan who has become a critic in recent years. “I understand the prudential decision he made to cooperate with Trump, but I don’t think history is going to look back kindly on that.”Some of Ryan’s longtime cheerleaders wonder whether it was worth it. While Ryan, a fiscal hawk and former Budget Committee chairman, ushered through the largest tax overhaul since 1986, his longtime goal of reforming entitlements splattered on the cutting room floor.
What’s more, the budget deficit under his watch as speaker ballooned from less than $438 billion in fiscal 2015 to $779 billion this year. A Forbes headline earlier this year read “Paul Ryan’s Most Lasting Legacy: Permanent Trillion-Dollar Deficits.”
Ryan’s allies argue it’s not his fault. The speaker tried to persuade Trump and Senate Republican leaders to tackle Medicare and Social Security reform during a critical Camp David strategy session in early 2017, but he was rebuffed. And a dramatic restructuring of Medicaid died when Senate Republicans failed to take up and pass Ryan’s Obamacare repeal plan last year.
Ryan allies also argue that he didn’t have a choice but to curb his criticism of the president if he wanted to remain speaker. His own members scolded him for criticizing Trump following the release of the “Access Hollywood” video in the fall of 2016, in which Trump can be heard bragging about groping women.
Indeed, when Trump won the presidential election, the hard-line Freedom Caucus stood at the ready to push Ryan out of office for jabbing Trump on the campaign trail. The only reason Trump kept him around was because Vice President Mike Pence and other pro-Ryan Republicans argued in favor of having a true legislative tactician and wonk shepherding his priorities through a convoluted Congress.
Had Ryan forcefully criticized Trump during his presidency, the leader of the party might have come after him, Ryan’s allies say.
“That’s the toughest job in American politics,” said former Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), an Illinois Republican who lost in the midterm election.
Retired GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, a centrist and frequent Trump critic, agreed: “Should he have spoken up more about the president? My answer would be yes … But I always felt Paul Ryan was in a tough spot. He had to deal with the rearguard action, like [ex-Speaker John] Boehner did. … He wouldn’t haven’t have gotten the support of his members.”Despite criticism against him, Ryan is loved by many of his colleagues. In a statement for this story, in fact, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “History will remember Paul as a leader but I will remember him also as a friend, and as an example of what’s right in our politics.”
“Paul’s service to our country is a story of integrity and results,” the California Republican said. “He has fought for his constituents for over two decades, inspired our party to embrace an ambitious conservative policy agenda, and led Congress in passing reforms that have charted a stronger path forward for our country.”
Ryan’s office likewise defends his legacy, citing tax reform as well as an expansive criminal justice overhaul that’s set to be signed into law, among other achievements.
“After years of doubt, years of the cynics saying it could not be done, we achieved the first major overhaul of our tax code in 31 years,” Ryan said during a farewell address Wednesday. “This is something I worked on my entire adult life, and it is something that will help to improve people’s lives for a long time to come.”
Ryan says he’s done with politics. But some wonder if the 48-year-old might return someday and run for president.

Ryan stops for lunch in Ohio in 2016 with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party is currently Trump’s. He has upended Ryan’s Jack Kemp-inspired conservatism in favor of his own populist vision. Of course, the pendulum couldswing back toward the party Ryan fell in love with. And some believe Ryan could — and should — return to office when that happens.
However, part of Ryan’s legacy will be that he didn’t stand up to Trump. When Trump refused to admonish white supremacists after a rally in Charlottesville, Va. led to a woman’s death in August 2017, Ryan condemned extremists and “moral ambiguity” but did not call the president by name nor ask his chairmen to hold hearings on the rise in violent extremism. When Trump turned his ire on Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Ryan merely declared that the special counsel should continue to do his job.
Ryan has spent nearly half his life working or serving in Congress, which did provide him a unique perspective on the institution. He first came to Washington as an intern in college. In 1992, he landed a job as a staff assistant for former Sen. Robert Kasten (R-Wis.), working as a waiter at Tortilla Coast, a Capitol Hill restaurant, as well as a personal trainer to supplement his income.
Following Kasten’s loss in 1992, Ryan got a job at Empower America, a conservative think tank run by Kemp, a former Republican congressman from New York. Kemp was an ideological mentor for Ryan, a touchstone that Ryan returned to over and over again during his tenure in Congress, even after Kemp’s death in 2009.
In 1995, Ryan got a job working for former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) before returning to Wisconsin two years later to prepare for a run for Congress. Ryan won his House seat the following year, and he remained in the House for 20 years. He served as chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees and was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election.

Ryan spent decades in Washington and on the Hill. Here he’s seen departing Air Force One with President George W. Bush in 2006. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Beyond his awkward relationship with Trump, Ryan’s tenure as speaker is marred by battles with the right. While many conservatives cheered the day he took the gavel following Boehner’s ouster, the most hard-line members of his conference quickly decided he was no different than the Ohio Republican they had just pushed out of Washington.
Freedom Caucus members regularly complained that his legislation wasn’t conservative enough and that leadership had a top-down approach to legislating. And when Trump took office, they found a way to go around Ryan — they appealed to Trump directly. This undercut Ryan’s influence in the House, a stature that was only diminished following his retirement announcement nearly a year before his exit.
During the Obamacare repeal effort, for example, Freedom Caucus leaders circumvented Ryan’s office and took their case directly to the president to enact changes to the initial repeal Ryan had drafted. Those changes, while eventually helping the bill over the finish line, would later haunt the entire party: The GOP was hammered during the midterms for proposing to weaken protections for pre-existing conditions.It’s wasn’t just conservatives either. Republicans on the Ways and Means committee privately vented about Ryan’s tight grip on the tax reform overhaul. Many of those GOP tax writers decided to retire or leave Congress altogether — some out of frustration that they couldn’t put their imprint on legislation.
Despite their differences, Ryan and Trump found a way to make their relationship work. Trump would refer to Ryan as the “boy scout.” Ryan, in turn, would try to convince Trump on issues privately instead of dogging him publicly.
But the two never functioned as efficiently as Trump did with Mitch McConnell. Although the Senate majority leader had some bad moments with Trump, it never got as bad as Ryan and Trump’s relationship during the 2016 campaign.
The tensions between the two resurfaced just days before the midterm elections. Ryan pushed back on Trump’s proposal to ax birthright citizenship, saying he doesn’t have the power to change the Constitution. Trump tweeted that Ryan should be focused on the House’s reelection efforts.
“Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about!” Trump tweeted. “Our new Republican Majority will work on this, Closing the Immigration Loopholes and Securing our Border!”
In his farewell speech, Ryan talked about how politics should be a “clash of ideas” but also a “civil” discourse. It was classic Ryan: urging his follow policymakers not to attack each other but find a way to work together to make change for the nation.
“One side may win, and one may lose, but we dust ourselves off and start anew knowing each one fought in pursuit of their honest ideals,” he said. “But today, too often, genuine disagreement quickly gives way to intense distrust. We spend far more time trying to convict one another than we do developing our own convictions.”
Ryan didn’t say Trump’s name once.

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